Taylor's Version improves a modern pop classic while revisiting the defining moment in Swift's story so far.
Where the conversation of Taylor Swift’s career is concerned, there will always be before and after Red.
Catching Swift in a sweet spot between the earnest country teen blues of Fearless and Speak Now before 1989’s spectacular embrace of pop superstardom, Red was the dawning of a new era for Swift in 2012. The singer’s fourth album saw her embrace both sides of her early and later sounds with a masterful mix of country, rock, folk and electropop that demonstrated to a wider audience the 22 year old was deservedly destined for lasting global domination, and it still stands as her most acclaimed work to date - if perhaps not quite her outright best.
9 years later and it feels as though there has never been a better time to celebrate the significance of this artistic milestone for Swift, with recognition of her songwriting skills growing in indie and alternative music circles thanks to the acclaim garnered by folklore and evermore last year. As Swift continues her journey to reclaim ownership of her catalogue while reimagining her past records, Red makes for an ideal candidate to follow Fearless from this past April – a chance to revisit the moment that Swift took the sweet teen blues of her early career and crafted something deeper, darker and more defined on a record that explores heartbreak with a level of startling insight and bitter wisdom that could never have been rightly expected from an artist in their teens.
For that matter, the same must be said of an artist in their early twenties. Most songwriters don’t manage to capture with such poignancy the grief, trauma and chaos of their first adult heartbreak in a lifetime, but Swift was already no ordinary songwriter.
Taylor’s Version recaptures all of the magic of its original while adding layers of nuance and dexterity to a vibrant mix, with a richly redeveloped palette of sharpened instrumentation and production to match the mesmerizing timbre of the 32 year old’s voice, which has never sounded better than now. Along with the rollercoaster of emotions Swift explores in subject matter with her then newfound lyrical depth over the 16 tracks of the original album, there’s a wild variety of genres utilized with almost casual abandon to reflect the ups and downs of love, loss and recovery.
From the bombastic stadium rock of opening duo of ‘State of Grace’ and ‘Red’ to the unabashed pop bliss of ecstatic smash singles ‘22’, We Are Never Getting Back Together’ and ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’, there’s a verifiable treasure trove of styles traversed to soundtrack Swift’s life lessons in love gone wrong. The tender acoustic balladry of ‘Treacherous’, ‘I Almost Do’ and ‘Begin Again’ stand as highlights now and then, particularly the latter which closes Red with the cathartic, life affirming closure of moving on and finding someone new after all of the wreckage that Red details so vividly.
All of this is without even mentioning the myth and legend of that song. For almost a decade, ‘All Too Well’ has been championed by critics and fans alike as the crowning achievement of Swift’s career to date, and justly so. The changes made for Taylor’s Version are subtle yet significant, with the slide guitar so low in the mix as to go almost undetected underneath Swift’s majestic vocal take and the disarming directness of four strummed acoustic chords that eventually burst into life, with a backing synthline and full rock band that attempts to equal the devastating poetic power of Swift’s masterpiece.
The raw, unfiltered emotion of ‘All Too Well’ is rendered even more potent in this reimagined version, casting aside the original track as a distant memory much like the majority of Taylor’s Version, which effortlessly justifies these re-recordings as worthy replacements of their source material by once again leaning subtly but firmly into the acoustic elements of its predecessor to craft a highly developed instrumental update.
Not everything hits better than it did in 2012 – the back half of Red is still somewhat dragged down by indifferent guest appearances from Gary Lightbody and Ed Sheeran, whose bland contributions don’t compliment Swift’s songwriting for the better then or now. These ill fated collaborations almost sound clunkier in 2021 considering the excellent duets Swift has executed in the past year with Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner and more – not to mention Phoebe Bridgers who shows up for ‘Nothing New’, one of several bonus highlights From The Vault before the much anticipated extended version of ‘All Too Well’ brings a behemoth 130 minutes to a close. This synth laden rendition of the iconic break up anthem seemingly attempts to capture every sound of Swift’s career inside 10 whirlwind minutes, but can’t possibly live up to the spellbinding simplicity of the original. The ultimate result is another triumphant victory in Swift’s quest to retake control of her music, with Taylor’s Version unquestionably improving a modern pop classic. As a watershed moment in Swift’s trajectory, Red will perhaps go down in history as the most important album of her discography. As such, Taylor’s Version delivers on an almost impossibly high standard by reimagining the defining moment of Swift’s story so far while retaining the emotion and ecstasy that Red channeled to perfection almost a decade ago.
8.5 / A-
Best Tracks: 'Red'/'All Too Well'/'Begin Again'
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